By Siarhei Bohdan
On Thursday, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka sent out a warning - if Russia would keep export duties on its petroleum products, Belarus would not be able to stay in the Russia-dominated Customs Union anymore.
Belarus would see economic sense in the union only if Putin would deliver on his promise on duties which some years earlier seriously undermined the profitability of Belarusian trading of petroleum products. This threat is just one in a series of Lukashenka's recent unfriendly moves against the Kremlin.
Earlier last week, the Ukrainian Prime Minister visited Belarus - exactly at a moment when Russia is running amok after Ukraine's decision to sign the Association Agreement with the EU instead of joining the Customs Union. Lukashenka assured Ukraine that Belarus has no complaints towards Ukraine.
Two weeks ago the Belarusian leader met his Kazakhstani counterpart to coordinate their positions with Moscow. Lukashenka continues to aggressively resist Moscow's pressure and, for its part, Moscow leaves him really no other choice if he wants to survive.
Demonstrative Belarusian Support for Kyiv
Russia has just ended one more “customs war” with Ukraine. In its battle against Kyiv, it actively encouraged other members of Customs Union - Belarus and Kazakhstan - to join in. However this move was all in vain as Belarusian government agencies did not find anything harmful to human health in from the Ukrainian confectionery giant “Roshen”, the same company which Russian state health agencies declared dangerous. Just before his visit to Kazakhstan, Lukashenka in an interview rebuked Moscow for its policies and explained that he was not willing to blindly support Russia in everything it does.
Just before the visit of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, the main media outlet of the Belarusian government, Belarus Segodnya, quoted Lukashenka saying it was too early to judge the efficiency of the Customs Union. Given the timing and media which published the interview, it contained a clear message – even as a member of the Customs Union, Belarus reserves its right to judge critically this post-Soviet integration initiative.
Lukashenka added that even if Ukraine would join NATO, Minsk would calmly watch from the side. Azarov thanked the Belarusian leadership for its “calm stance” concerning Ukrainian plans on cooperation with the EU.
On the one hand, after this last trade war with Moscow, Kyiv is looking for allies among the members of Customs Union. Azarov's visit demonstrates that Kyiv, despite rapprochement with the EU, wishes to develop relations with members of the Customs Union.
When Ukraine is moving westwards, Belarus is receiving all possible Russian subsidies as its major ally
On the other hand, political analyst Andrei Fyodarau speculated that the Belarusian leadership might be interested in Ukraine moving closer to the EU. After all, if Ukraine had joined the Customs Union then Belarus would move down on Russia's list of priorities. “But when Ukraine is moving westwards, Belarus is receiving all possible Russian subsidies as its major ally.”
This demonstrative friendship with the Ukrainian leadership conducting a pro-Western policy is not a new development in Belarusian foreign policy. Lukashenka also had good relations with the previous pro-Western president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, who helped him establish a close relationship with another pro-Western leader – Georgia's own Mikheil Saakashvili. Regardless of who runs the Ukrainian state, Minsk has cared about its relations with Kyiv in so much as it is interested in watching its own back in its dealings with Russia.
Minsk against the Customs Union
Another beneficial alliance which helps the Belarusian government to survive and fight back Russian pressure is its relationship with Kazakhstan. On 3-4 October, Lukashenka visited the country. This news once again resulted in discussion about Minsk and Astana allying themselves against Moscow.
Lukashenka and Nazarbayev went beyond simply bolstering bilateral relations. They also issued a statement that the Customs Union is an economic project and should not become political. Lukashenka is well known for resisting the creation of supranational organs in this Russia-led integration block.
Supranational organs threaten not only Belarusian sovereignty, but also Lukashenka's power. So far, he widely used economic instruments to maintain his own power and prevented a massive takeover of Belarusian economic assets by Russian oligarchs despite the Kremlin's pressure, although in the end, he sold Moscow - after prolonged procrastination - some valuable assets such as Beltransgaz - the country's gas transportation pipeline. Further integration within the Customs Union may take from him a part of his economic power.
Political analyst Arseni Sivitski from a new think-tank, that is reportedly close to some quarters of Belarusian ruling establishment, said on Radio Liberty: “It can be said that there was a kind of alliance founded to resist Russian efforts to enforce a form of political integration, yet this alliance emerged already at the beginning of the Customs Union.... This time, however, the criticism on behalf of Minsk and Astana was formulated clearly.”
Meanwhile, political commentator Alyaksandr Klaskouski warns that Nazarbayev and Lukashenka might be forming an alliance against Russia – especially in relation to the possible expansion of the Customs Union, yet “they do not even trust each other.”
Tolgonay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Fund for Democracy Development believes that the alliance is not yet established and the partners are now studying each other. Because of disappointments with the Customs Union and concerns linked to harsh Russian policies towards Ukraine and Moldova, “Kazakhstan is looking for a ground to establish a kind of alliance with Belarus to somehow resist Russia while avoiding disruption of its relations with Russia”.
Moscow effectively is hampering the development of Belarusian-Kazakhstani relations. For years, Belarus has tried to get oil from Kazakhstan. It would allow Minsk to diversify its oil sources. It would also be more profitable for Kazakhstan to get its oil processed in Belarusian refineries before selling it abroad - now its sales to Europe are only in the form of crude oil. Russia is blocking this plan, and given the role of oil industry in Russia, there is little hope that the situation can change.
Actually, Moscow displays no interest whatsoever in Belarus and Kazakhstan building strong states. It prefers to control weak countries. This policy of the Kremlin is increasingly pushing Russia's current allies to look for their future allies somewhere else.